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UN: HIV, AIDS Contribute to Low School Attendance in Africa - 2002-04-12

Only four out of every 10 children in Africa attend primary school, and even fewer attend secondary school and high school. These are among the findings of a new United Nations study published Friday on the state of education in Africa.

Warfare, spiraling population growth, poverty and the AIDS epidemic, these are among the factors contributing to low primary school attendance rates across much of sub-Saharan Africa. So concludes a new study by the statistical office of the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The U.N. report covers the 1998 to 1999 school year for 43 sub-Saharan African countries, along with five island nations and Sudan. Its figures are based on surveys sent to African governments, along with data from international organizations like the World Bank. The report does not say, however, whether the overall state of primary school education in Africa has gotten better or worse.

But Claude Sauvageot, an African expert at the French Ministry of Education and a UNESCO consultant, estimates that fewer young children attend school today than a decade ago. Mr. Sauvageot says that is partly because the number of children born in Africa has grown faster than schools' capacity to educate them. HIV and AIDS are other problems, he says.

"Of course AIDS is a big problem for children, but for the teachers too. In some countries the numbers of teachers reached by AIDS it is crazy, completely crazy," he said. Mr. Sauvageot's assessment is shared by the U.N researchers. The report says the AIDS and HIV epidemic in Africa have depleted the numbers of school teachers and administrators. The epidemic has also diverted funds that might once have gone to education, and traumatized young children attending schools.

Poorly trained teachers, it says, insufficient international aid, inadequate infrastructure and, in some cases lack of government will are other reasons for low primary school attendance in many African countries. Only about a third of all children attend primary school in Djibouti or Burkina Faso, for example.

But there are also bright spots. The majority of children attend school in Botswana, Mauritius and Kenya. Mr. Sauvageot says Mali also has made big strides in expanding school attendance, in part by increasing student-teacher ratio. And less than a decade after the country's horrific genocide, nine out of 10 children attend primary school in Rwanda.